This is the latest Vertigo Crime graphic novel and it's, well... at least it's readable. The story involves Joe Ullen, a former hockey star who returns to his hometown after his old high school girlfriend dies under mysterious circumstances. In addition to dying under mysterious circumstances, she's also named him the executor of her will which leads him to reconnect with a lot of old characters and dig up some secrets as well. I've never heard of writer Jon Evans before this, but he makes a serviceable debut as a comic book writer. His plot twists and turns in ways both surprising, and (at least) pleasing in their familiarity. What he lacks is any real style or flair to make his characters and dialogue stand out on the page. Artist Andrea Mutti is similarly capable, though his characters' body language comes off as awkward in places, and his art suffers from the fact that it was obviously meant to be in color rather than black and white. Though I also liked his use of Native Americans and their reservation as a setting, it also served to remind me of a much better book from Vertigo, Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's "Scalpled," which does it in a much more interesting fasion (it's sixth volume "The Gnawing" also came out last week).
Shizuro Oguro is living the life of an average Japanese salaryman when his mid-life crisis kicks in and he quits his job to become a mangaka. Unfortunately he can't find the right motivation he needs to create the timeless classic that will prove to his dad and daughter that this wasn't a huge mistake. Rather than glorify Shizuro's decision to break from tradition and pursue what he loves (however halfheartedly) mangaka Shunju Aono's characterization of the man rings more true as he winds up looking for "inspiration" in video games, playing at the park, and in his new job at a fast food joint. While I can see the truth in this situation, the manga itself winds up feeling as aimless and directionless as its main character more often than not. The exception is the final story which shows us Shizuro through the eyes of a woman preparing to commit suicide, and his situation and determination manage to come off as more endearing than wearying. Hopefully we'll see more stories like that in the next volume.
Norman Osborne's relentless pursuit of Tony Stark and the secrets in his head concludes in this volume which provides as thrilling a ride as you can expect in mainstream comics today. Tony's path of escape leads him though the snowy fields of Russia to the craggy mountains of Afghanistan as he tries to stay one step ahead of Osborne's cronies. Things aren't going that much better for his friends as Maria Hill is barely holding herself together after breaking free from the Controller in the last volume, and Pepper Potts finds herself on the wrong end of Madam Masque's vindictive streak against Tony's girlfriends. It's a slick, fast-paced thrill ride that also finds time for lots of quiet character moments that drive home the importance of what's at stake for these characters. Really, the only thing keeping this from topping "Extremis" as my favorite Iron Man story is that even though this is the end of the arc, it's not the end of the story as it ends by setting up the next story "Stark Disassembled." That said, it does so in a way that is pure joy for any fan of the Marvel Universe.
While I've always been entertained by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris' tale of the world's only superhero who goes on to be the mayor of New York City, there are times when its narrative hasn't flown all that smoothly. Times like in vol. 4's take on the War on Terror or vol. 6's story of a guy who mysteriously appears from somewhere else... and nothing happens. It's for reasons like these that I've always assumed that this series would be Vaughan's second best after "Y: The Last Man." I'm still betting that's the case, but with this latest volume he proves that he really did have a plan for the series from the start.
Things start off with a bit of metatextual fun as Vaughan writes himself and Harris into a story about their efforts to become Mayor Mitchell Hundred's official biographers. This could have been painfully overindulgent, as the story is about Vaughan more than anything else, but he makes it into an interesting character piece that would've worked even if he hadn't written himself in. Helping matters immensely is the great sense of humor on display throughout the issue as he riffs on his own knack for putting miscellaneous factoids into his comics, and Harris' use of photo-reference. There are also a lot of industry in-jokes that will go right over the head of the uninformed, but will make anyone who gets them laugh out loud. His timing and use of the phrase "Brian Bendis?" is the funniest thing I've seen in a comic this year. Overall, this was so entertaining that I'd like to see them tell the story of the creators who actually did get the job as Hundred's biographers.
The next story in the collection, "Green" the fourth "special" issue of the series and the second illustrated by John Paul Leon, isn't really in the same league. It starts off trying to tell two different stories, about the decline of newspapers and Hundred's efforts to find more "green" energy solutions for NYC, and then segues into a thriller that attempts to shed more light on his past and his powers. While there are some good ideas here about green energy and the media's role in society, this is a textbook example of a story that tries to do too much in too little space and time. Reading this, I was at a loss as to why Vaughan felt this tale needed to be told, let alone why it needed its own special issue.
Then I read through the four-issue "Ring Out the Old" arc and it all became clear. No, really. EVERYTHING became clear after this.
I wasn't expecting to have that reaction to a story that starts off with a flashback to one of Hundred's confrontations with his archenemy, Pherson, who can talk to animals in the way the Mayor can talk to machines, and then goes straight into his pledge to not run for a second term as mayor and instead focus on balancing the budget and raising graduation rates. If he fails, he tells the media that he'll leave the city; but, before he can start focusing on that he has to deal with the upcoming New Year's Eve celebration. Compared to his recent pledges, it should be a piece of cake... if it weren't for the rash of homeless people being attacked and killed by rats and Hundred's former ladyfriend, reporter Susane Padilla, asking about the "White Box."
Now the big tease of this storyline was that it was going to involve the return of Pherson, which would've been interesting to see after his death many years ago (and chronicled way back in vol. 4). The return of the hero's archenemy after his certain death is a time-honored tradition and it makes perfect sense for a series that has such strong roots in the genre to wheel out this convention as it moves into its final act. However, the confrontation between Hundred and "Pherson" doesn't really subvert the superhero convention so much as it repudiates it. More than anything else, it shows that while the series was initially marketed as an examination of politics through the eyes of a superhero, it's actually a straight-up work of science fiction. The revelation also makes plot elements that seemed questionable upon their introduction (see Zeller from vol. 6, and the gardener from "Green") key pieces of the overall story and shows that Vaughan has actually had a plan for this series since the beginning.
Further proof of Vaughan's skill as a plotter can be seen in the parallel revelation about the "White Box." Ever since the beginning of the series, it's been hinted that Hundred has an embarrassing skeleton in his closet that could potentially bring down his administration, and Kremlin, his former partner from his superhero days, finally put his plan to use that skeleton into effect in the previous volume. While I thought it would be something that had to do with his sexuality, the skeleton actually proves to be crucial to the overall story at large. Even more interesting is how Kremlin's plans wind up not only fail to come to fruition, but they also backfire in a way that has dire circumstances for not just Hundred and NYC, but possibly the nation and world.
These revelations are so satisfying that I'm sorely tempted to actually buy the final six issues themselves before the final trade paperback comes out in November. I think I'll be able to make it if only because I've managed to for every other series I've read. Even so, this is a fantastic volume and will not only serve to thrill its existing audience, but should serve as a beacon to all of the holdouts that they are missing out on something truly special.
Marvel's answer to the old Roadrunner cartoons reaches its third volume. At this point, I can't really recommend the series to anyone who isn't already reading it since its recent end has made it painfully clear that this was a series whose only purpose was to stall for time. I'll admit that its goal of getting Cable and Hope out of the mainstream Marvel continuity so that she could age into a proper character and jumpstart the current crossover "Second Coming" had the secondary effect of making it one of the few ongoing Marvel titles that does have a distinct beginning middle and end. Too bad that it's wasted on a stalling tactic. This volume has some nice moments with Hope and the boy who falls in love with her, decent action that involves the Brood, and competent art from Paul Gulacy and Gabriel Guzman; but it doesn't add up to much in the end. Still better than "Messiah War," though.
DC Comics' manga imprint CMX was shut down earlier today. On one level, the lack of any bestselling titles, low buzz, and general lack of promotion from its parent company didn't make it seem like much of a surprise. On the other, the fact that it lasted six years despite all of these issues made the news surprising to me.
Personally, I'm not too broken up about it as I only bothered to collect three series from them. As I mentioned on my year-end podcast, Kaoru Mori's "Emma" was excellent and judging from what I've read about it on the internet, most people would agree that it was the line's crown jewel. Many people liked marginal and Syuji Takeda's "Astral Project," while I talked about it in a podcast entitled "Interesting Failures." The last one, Yu Yagami's "Go West" fell in between the two in terms of quality as it was an amusing look at the American "Old West" from a creator with a truly nutty sense of humor that didn't match the comic heights of his other series, "Hikkatsu" (published by the now equally departed Go!Comi).
The irony of their demise today is that I'd still be reading one of their titles if they had decided to release it unedited. I speak, of course, of Oh! Great's "Tenjo Tenge." Much as Kentaro Miura's "Berserk" has a story and characters strong enough to support and justify all of the violence in that series, "Tenjo Tenge" was the same for sex. (Not surprising when you consider that the creator's first work released in English was the "Silky Whip" hentai manga.) When CMX announced that they'd be releasing it in English, I was thrilled to no end. Then when it was revealed that they had edited it for content, I vowed to put my money where my mouth was and not buy from them.
Now I can imagine the laughter that last remark is getting because the internet is filled with plenty of vindictive fanboys who swear the same thing and wind up not changing anything or they go out and buy the series anyway. I had a much easier time of things because CMX never released anything that I had much of an interest in. Their stock-in-trade was mainly (as I saw it) generic shojo titles or gender-neutral action or fantasy titles. Even when I broke down and offered to read some titles as thanks to a friend (who was a big fan of the imprint) as thanks for a favor, I wasn't too impressed by two of the titles she loaned me. "Oyayubihime Infinity" had two narratives competing for space, and the one I was less interested in appeared to be the one that would be the focus of the series. "Penguin Revolution" on the other hand was a harmless tale about the talent industry in Japan. The other title was "Emma," but that wasn't my introduction to the series as I had seen the first season of the anime a while back. I did break down when volume seven came out (and wrapped up the core story) and picked up the entire series after it was becoming apparent that I was denying myself a good thing.
As for the rest of the imprint? Meh... I might get around to picking up the other Yu Yagami series that they published, "Dokkoida!," but he fact that "Tenjo Tenge" and many other series won't see completion doesn't really fill me with rage. (For an example of that, you'll want to listen to my podcast on Hiroki Endo's "Eden: It's an Endless World" tomorrow.) In the end, I'd like to say that it was admirable that DC stuck with the imprint all these years, but they never seemed to really care about it. Their commitment to publishing manga seemed to be nothing more than a token nod to the prevailing trend at the time, and if they had spent half as much, or more, of the effort they spend publishing their superhero titles, they might've made something more of the imprint. As it is, we can at least be thankful that some good titles made it to the U.S. while they still pretended to care.
You might have noticed that my reviews of manga that serve as the basis for anime that I've seen tend to follow a certain script. Generally I'll say that they're fine, but what I'm really waiting for is when the stories go past the anime so I can start reading new stuff (see "Black Lagoon" or "Bokurano"). I've also seen the anime that was made out of mangaka Kou Yaginuma's "Twin Spica" a few years back, but there are things about the first volume that make me think that reading the manga will be a more enjoyable and interesting experience than the other times I've found myself in this situation.
The world of "Twin Spica" is one where manned spaceflight has proliferated to the point where kids can now enroll in astronaut training schools instead of high school. That's the goal of Asumi Kamogawa, who wants to be a rocket pilot more than anything, in spite of the fact that she's the smallest kid in her class and hasn't told her dad that she has also passed the test to enroll in the Tokyo Space School. She's not the only one, though, as the amount of kids who have passed the test this year is so great that the school officials have cooked up a special test to weed out the less promising recruits.
Now my first impression of the anime, which the manga also bears out, was that it was like a kiddie version of mangaka Makoto Yukimura's "Planetes" (excellent in manga form, more so in anime). Now that's not a bad thing as I thought that the idea of seeing kids undergo training for tasks that are (at least in our reality) well above their age was potentially fascinating. The first volume of the manga covers what I thought was the most interesting part of the series as Asumi is locked in a room with two other girls, the friendly Kei and the standoffish Marika, and has to work together with them in order to create a line of several thousand dominoes within three days. The idea is to see how well the students work together in cramped conditions, respond to orders, and handle outside stimuli. Even though I knew what was going to happen, it was still entertaining to see it play out on the page as the ensuing clash of personalities coupled with the task at hand makes for some satisfying drama.
The circumstances also keep Asumi's lion-hooded guardian spirit away. Oh, did I not mention she has one of those? As it turns out, she's had the ghost of an astronaut who perished in the worst rocket accident in Japanese history to keep her company ever since she was a little kid. From a narrative standpoint I can understand his inclusion, since he serves to provide a sounding board for her inner thoughts. However, this bit of magical realism co-exists uneasily with the realistic sci-fi leanings of the main story. I'm also going to admit that I have a personal bias towards the character after seeing him in the anime since I didn't like how much of in was given over to Asumi's interactions with him, and the hints that he has some history with Makita (of the "that makes no sense" kind).
What makes me hopeful for the future of the manga is that the stories focusing on him and a much younger Asumi were not done as part of the main narrative. The two stories included at the end, involving Asumi and her mother's ashes and a near-death dream as she helps her mother cross the river Sanzo to the afterlife, were created before the "Twin Spica" manga began. Now while these stories aren't bad, they're actually pretty effective tales of a young girl coming to terms with the death of a mother she never really knew, they don't really add anything to the core story and had they been part of the main story I'd be more inclined to regard them as an unwanted distraction to the more interesting business of Asumi's space training. Which is how I eventually came to regard these stories in the anime. As they're not part of the main narrative, I'm hopeful that we'll get a more focused take on Asumi's quest to become a rocket pilot.
Now that I've discussed my issues, let me just say that I don't think it's inconceivable that people would have an issue with Yaginuma's art. While he tells the story well in a straightforward manner, his style has all of his characters looking like kids even though they're all old enough to be in high school. While this will no doubt please the moe fans out there, it makes the story look like it's intended for a much younger audience than it is. I can see how people would dismiss it as a "kid's book" just by looking at it, but Yaginuma doesn't talk down to his audience in the telling of his story and that makes it something that kids of all ages can enjoy.
"Twin Spica" also represents a change on the part of its publisher, Vertical, to broaden their audience beyond the old-school manga that has been their stock-in-trade for many years. Next up is the cute kitty manga "Chi's Sweet Home," and Felipe Smith's "Peepo Chu," which represents the first time an American creator has published a manga-style story in Japan. It'll be interesting to see if "Twin Spica" does broaden their audience, since it would seem that Vertical's existing audience of readers who are willing to look beyond a manga's age and initial look would be the people most inclined to give this book a shot. Regardless of how it does, the first volume is a good all-ages read that makes me hopeful the rest of the series will follow in suit.
Now this isn't a "real" volume of "B.P.R.D." in the sense that it doesn't continue the ongoing story of the bureau's fight against the frogs. What it is, is a collection of four one-shots (and a story from "MySpace Dark Horse Presents") that were published in between the various miniseries that have writers Mike Mignola and John Arcudi working with a host of talented artists to tell short stories with the cast of the B.P.R.D. While none of these stories are bad, and it is nice to see Roger the Homunculus and Capt. Ben Daimio again, they really don't add anything noteworthy to the series mythos. All of the art is great, with Peter Snejbjerg's depiction of the frogs' afterlife and John Severin's "'Alien' on an abandoned ship" being particularly worthy of mention, but unless you're buying it just for that you can safely skip this volume. I'd say you could do the same for the next volume, "B.P.R.D.: 1947," but I'm actually dying to see how Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba tackle that section of the "Hellboy" universe.
After I enjoyed "Heavy Liquid" so much, my next order of business was to pick up Paul Pope's other graphic novel for Vertigo "100%." Ultimately I think the decision over which one is better comes down to personal preference (I liked the more focused story and action in "Heavy Liquid") but both are worth your time and money. "100%" takes place in a similar near-future society and tracks the lives of a group of people as their lives intertwine and intersect over the course of a few days. Even though a lot of these characters are familiar types, the aging fighter, the frustrated artist, the girl on the run, Pope makes their stories interesting by not taking the obvious way out with any of their scenarios, as well as having it all look brilliant. Whether it's dancers having their insides lit up, people eating sushi, or a hundred kettles whistling in unison, the man makes his world feel vibrantly alive on the page.